Social Media 101

Food and beverage marketers are lucky – people are passionate and highly particular about what they consume. So, it isn’t surprising that the masses would want to be “friends” with food and beverage brands in social media. Do I want to be friends with prime rib and a frosty lager? Absolutely!

Some other not-so-lucky marketers still seem to think consumers will show the love online despite brand blandness – not true. I’ve been asked to “friend” toilet paper, dish detergent and a number of other non-social commodity products. Let’s get real – unless your toilet paper is extra amazing, it’s not going to happen.

Despite the advantage in product appeal, we’re seeing a host of food and beverage marketers leaping onto the social media wagon with half-baked (pun intended) marketing plans. The plan becomes all about tactics and less about sound strategy, which inevitably produces unsuccessful executions.

Why? One simple reason: social media isn’t a silver bullet. It’s the value exchange between brand and consumer that really matters. The value exchange reins supreme because it determines whether consumers will stay with your social media message and return to it on a long-term basis. So, ask yourself, “What do consumers want from my brand online?” And “What am I willing to provide them in exchange for the time and attention they give me?”

Instead of assuming that “my brand needs a Facebook page,” marketers should first decide what the value exchange is and make this the cornerstone of their social media strategy. Without this vital step, all time and money spent creating that social media property is wasted. You get to be that brand, you know, the “friendly” toilet paper with 11 weirdly loyal fans. 

When handled properly, social media can be a valuable asset to your brand. It’s engaging, media-rich and constantly improving. It has the ability to reach vast numbers of consumers on a one-on-one level. Most importantly, it’s the ultimate platform for advertising’s most powerful weapon: word-of-mouth.

Are consumers going to trust the restaurant critic more than they trust your ad? Of course. Because the critic is an objective person with taste buds, and you are a brand with an agenda.

Consumers’ natural inclination to trust their peers more than advertisers is an obvious barrier, but one that can be overcome by focusing on the value exchange instead of the tactic of the day. Over time, as demonstrated by brands that have mastered this concept, consumers’ perception of the brand messaging moves away from faceless marketer and more toward trusted peer. 

Exploring Value Exchanges

Let’s focus on three popular value exchanges – information, money and entertainment – and how food and beverage brands can use them to build their brands first in social media, then offline at key touch points such as in-store at shelf. 

Food is a high-involvement category that requires a lot of rich information. For instance, consumers searched for recipes 6.1 billion times on Google in 2010. As consumer interest in food grows – which is inevitable as food-related media and celebrity becomes more pervasive – marketers have a great opportunity to provide a richer information exchange. Not just at home, but right there at the point of purchase via mobile device. If you’re managing a consumer packaged good’s brand, the ability to deliver the right information to consumers at this critical time is priceless.

The golden value exchange in this area provides bookmark-worthy information, something consumers keep tabs on for frequent use. A prime example would be savvy food truck owners who tap into real-time platforms like Twitter to deliver the daily specials and what time loyal patrons can expect lunch to roll up outside their offices.

Another value exchange on smart marketers’ radar is money. Wallets are feeling lighter these days, and consumers value their money now more than ever. So, it’s no surprise that coupons are en vogue. 

The darling of online couponing is Groupon, a company that provides highly discounted, area-specific deals to registered users. A 50 percent-or-more discount is a compelling value exchange to most consumers. Groupon deals are commonly shared via social networks. It’s a costly way to drive traffic and product trial, but when consumers “like” your offer, that’s a lot of free eyeballs.

Many brands are also rewarding consumers for being brand advocates in social media through loyalty rewards. Restaurants and bars have started providing discounts to those consumers who “oust” their peers to become “mayor” of the property on Foursquare. This value exchange seems heavily biased toward the consumer – all he has to do is “check in” – but the marketer is increasing traffic and trial at minimal cost while saturating social media with brand messaging. It’s a win-win. 

A third variation of the monetary value exchange, cause-related programs, can offer brands a smart angle to reach consumers. The Pepsi Refresh Project is a terrific example. The campaign put consumers in control by asking them to propose charitable local projects that needed funding, then extended that engagement by letting consumer votes determine which ideas received support. 

The program, housed in a microsite, created millions of feel-good Pepsi impressions via social media.  

Entertainment is the holy grail of value exchanges. Creating content that consumers find worthy of sharing is somewhat of a crapshoot, but when done right, the payout can be staggering. Quirky, whimsical classics like Burger King’s interactive “Subservient Chicken” microsite and Blendtec’s “Will It Blend?” YouTube series have paved the way for more grounded, longstanding value exchanges such as Red Bull’s online role as curator of extreme sports videos and events.

So, ready to jump in? Ask yourself these questions: Is my brand interesting enough for people to friend it, follow it and share it? Do I have the resources to invest? Am I ready for my brand to be placed in the hands of consumers in social media? And finally, am I prepared to offer a value exchange to my audience that they will find truly compelling?

If your answer to the fourth question is no, even if your answer to the first three is yes, abort your social media mission before it begins. 

Tactics without a value exchange will give you more headaches than brand advocates. If your answer to all these questions is a resounding yes, then start planning. Executed well, both your brand and your customers will be rewarded.     

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